Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood

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It's the late spring morning of an ordinary day and I'm putting the laundry away; clean clothes still warm from the dryer lie folded in a tower in my arms. I have just kissed my husband, Tom, goodbye, on his way out the door to town, twelve miles away. Truman, our border collie, dashes past me, trying to escape the small, half-dressed boy running around the house, with no pants on. Outside, the snow is falling in sleety, gritty flakes. I am wondering if winter will never end, thinking of that T. S. Eliot line about April being the cruelest month, when I hear a snap like the crack of dry wood; only there is no wood that could snap like that. Then I hear crying coming from our bedroom, cries like none I've ever heard before.
I drop the laundry and rush to our bedroom, to Carter, who is rolling slowly on the floor, mewling and whimpering. I race to the window and pound on it, trying to get Tom's attention before he drives away with our car. He sees me and I race back to Carter, try to hold him. "What's wrong, baby, what's wrong?" He can't speak from the pain.

I grab Carter's pants from the laundry on the floor, but can't find socks. I give him mine -- "Owie owie, rockie rockie, Mommy" -- then Carter crawls into our big bed, begging, "Hold me."

"Owie owie, Mommy!" Carter points to his right shin. I grab a package of frozen peas to use as an ice pack and Tom drives us all to the hospital. Carter is looking out the window and he is not crying; he is turning in to himself, maybe going into shock. Tom drives faster.

The ER receptionist talks on the phone, seemingly unconcerned about the toddler in my arms, our ice pack of frozen peas. I try to get her attention, cough and stomp my feet, but there is no blood, nothing obvious for her to see.

"Excuse me," Tom says, and she notices us, finally. We are shown to a room and a man in blue-green scrubs asks us what happened, asks how. I don't know any of the answers.

We need x-rays. We leave our things piled neatly: my socks, taken from Carter's feet; Tom's baseball cap; the frozen peas. I hold Carter, because it is the only way we can do this; he is scared and the machine is big and the technician keeps telling us he will shoot us quickly. "Tell me a story," Carter manages, and I do. I tell him the bedtime story about the boy with a mommy and a daddy and a black-and-white dog who live in a magical forest. But this story doesn't have an end. I don't know how it will turn out.

We return to the exam room, back to our small pile of belongings, and wait. I continue the story, telling of the time the brave boy went to the hospital to have a picture of his leg taken by a magic machine that could show him his bones inside, big and strong, the bones of a boy. The doctor shows us the x-rays and I think about the last time I saw grainy, gray-and-black images like these: Carter's ultrasound. His tiny fingers were curled in a fist and the dots of the bones in his spine looked like a string of pearls. Now we see another image. Here are the bones of the lower leg; here is where the tibia snapped.

Dave sets the cast. He is a slim, middle-aged Asian man with a silver hoop in his left ear and a long, salt-and-pepper ponytail. He has kind eyes and chapped hands. He pulls out a tray, rolls of gauze in foil, packages of fiberglass for casts. So many owies, I think.

Hands, Carter's in mine, so small. Three years, no big hurts. My whole existence has been about avoiding this moment, about protecting him. The plastic plugs in the sockets, our coffee table gone because the corners were too sharp, the bed sold because the slats were dangerous, gates at the stairs. We built a world of soft edges and rounded corners, all to protect him. Yet, here we are. Carter's cast is purple, the color of a grape gumball.

On the way home we stop at the hamburger place, cheeseburger, fries, Daddy soda, all yeses, anything he wants. At home, I carry him to the house and think how delicate he is, small and light as a falling snowflake. I need courage, need to be strong, but I feel shaky and scared, off-balance. Everything becomes suspect. I lay Carter on the couch and turn on a video about garbage trucks and go to get him a chocolate milky. The light is out in the fridge and this frightens me, as if the burned-out bulb is a sign, a portent of more bad things to come. The weather has worsened. The gray, slanting afternoon sunlight hurts Carter's eyes. I pull the shades down and give him pain medicine every two hours. Carter sleeps on the couch, me in the big chair next to him. We hold hands.

Bottles line the kitchen windowsill -- prescription Tylenol with codeine, children's Tylenol, children's ibuprofen. Tylenol for me. Next to all the medicines is an African violet in a yellow pot, a trial-sized lotion for extra-dry hands, a glass dish containing Carter's frog soap and a bar of sage soap from my mother-in-law. My dear, sweet boy.

"I got tangled in the rocking chair, Mommy," he tells me later, when the pain is under control and he can speak about it. The chair is the one I picked out with my dad before we even knew the baby I was carrying would be a boy, would be Carter. "You'll be spending a lot of time in this chair," my dad had said, "so it better be comfortable." We tried out all the chairs in the furniture store and picked the best one, the plushest and the most expensive. I ask Tom to move it into the garage. I can't bear to look at it.

The next day phone calls come; people have heard of our trouble and want to help. Our neighbor, Wendy, sends her husband, Craig, over to plow the driveway in case we need to get back to town. I try to pick up the house, taking comfort in the ordinariness of housework. I put more laundry in the dryer to tumble. I bake a chicken, using my friend's recipe that she calls "whole-house chicken," because while it's cooking, your whole house smells like supper. These are the small things I can do.

When the weather finally breaks, gifts arrive from friends, Grandma and Grandpa. A new Lite-Brite, fresh Play-Doh, a lap-sized easel. Videos, a pinwheel, bubbles. People e-mail suggestions to get a beanbag chair so Carter can sit up, to use a Radio Flyer wagon to pull him around. I wrap the cast in an Ace bandage so the purple fiberglass doesn't scratch the skin on his other leg. All the stuffed animals break their legs, and Carter wraps them up in Ace bandages. Mommy wears one, too; Daddy also. We are a broken-legged bunch, a family of walking wounded.

Tom and I count days again like we did during pregnancy, only this time it's the number of weeks until the cast comes off. Then one day it is all over, done, the cast no longer needed, and we sit in the exam room again. The break is not completely healed, the doctor explains; the last step in making it stronger is to take the cast off and start walking. It is time for trust now, time for faith in the simple fact of bone knitting to bone, time to believe in the healing power of broken things made right.

"No," Carter says. He doesn't want to give it up. The broken leg has become part of him, accepted into his life like so many things he quietly accepts, like when we say, "No more diapers" or "No more sippies" or "This is your new baby-sitter." And now he's afraid. Getting the cast off means everything will change again.

"We'll come back when you're ready," I say, though this means more waiting, another appointment in this very busy office, but it is fine. "Fine," I say.

Carter looks at me, then at Dave, the cast man, and says, "No, Mommy. It's okay. We can do it today. It's okay." I am so proud of him, my brave boy. All he needed was the chance to decide what would happen to him; all he wanted was to have some say in what came next. I look at him and think again how small he is, how light.

Jennifer Graf Groneberg’s essays have appeared at Literary Mama and elsewhere; she’s the mother of three (including twins born at 33 weeks gestation) and is the author of the award-winning memoir, Road Map to Holland (NAL/Penguin, 2008). Please visit her website to find out more.

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